As a veteran and an employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Rick Williams shares a kinship with those who have served in combat.
As an artist, the Buffalo native paid homage to them the best way he knows how: by painting their portraits and telling their stories.
His exhibit, "12 Veterans and Their Stories," is on display through April 17 in the museum at the VA regional office at 245 W. Houston St. in New York City.
Two of the veterans are from the Buffalo area. On a separate wall is Williams' self-portrait, with one half showing him as a fresh-faced 19-year-old on his way to Vietnam. The other half shows the "sagging flesh" of today, at age 56.
One of the local veterans, Chuck Ross, enlisted in the Army with Williams in 1969. By the following January, Ross, who had been an outstanding baseball player at West Seneca West High School, was in Quang Tri province near the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam.
"We were after [a North Vietnamese army] mortar platoon and were told to dig in for the night," Ross recalled.
A mortar round landed 2 feet behind him, and the shrapnel tore through him. Fortunately, he was wearing his flak jacket, and his upper body was saved. But his lower half was a mess.
"The doctors told me it was a miracle that I survived," said Ross, who spent months in various hospitals and underwent numerous surgeries.
Ross, now 57, was permanently disabled and acknowledged he has struggled at times. But he has a wife and three children, still lives in West Seneca and does volunteer work.
"A lot of people helped me to come back, and I do volunteer work to try to pay something back," he said.
"I feel fortunate that God allowed me to live, and there are 58,000 on the Wall in Washington who didn't get that chance," he said of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with the names of more than 58,000 U.S. military personnel killed in the war.
Richard Pringle joined the Army a short time after graduating from Bennett High in 1968 and was soon on his way to Vietnam.
He saw extensive combat yet returned home without any physical wounds.
But the war had taken its toll, and he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, including flashbacks of combat experiences.
"He continued to have inner battles," including ones with substance addictions, said his sister, Shelly.
He faced an even tougher battle when he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. After a long struggle, he died in April 2002, no less a casualty of the war than those whose names are on the Wall.
"We, his family, believe he had finally found peace before he died," his sister said.
The gallery includes portraits of veterans of other wars, some alive and some not. Survivors include Tammy Duckworth, the helicopter pilot who lost both legs in Iraq and ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year.
Williams, the artist, served in Vietnam as a medical corpsman and went on to become a physician's assistant. He then went to law school and for the last nine years has served as a administrative law judge in Washington, handling disability claims.
He began painting 15 years ago, and seven of his works are part of the permanent collection of the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago.
He plans to retire in a year and return to Buffalo to open a studio on Elmwood Avenue with his wife, Mara, also an artist.
While the VA is a vast bureaucracy, Williams said, he tries to remember that "behind every claims file is a face, flesh and blood, men and women who served their country, often with great sacrifice."
He said the 12 he selected for the gallery "are true heroes and are representative of hundreds of thousands of veterans who have served or continue to serve.
"I am honored to be part of it."